Kepler & the Jesuits 

"Of the nearly 5,000 total planet candidates found to date, more than 3,200 now have been verified, and 2,325 of these were discovered by Kepler. Launched in March 2009, Kepler is the first NASA mission to find potentially habitable Earth-size planets".

This relates to our study because we show that Johannes Kepler, after whom the spacecraft is named, was ahead of his time! In De Stella nova (1606) he defended Copernicus years before Galileo and speculated that the Milky Way (our galaxy) is teeming with extra-terrestrial life.

 

Our report begins in 1604 CE when a supernova exploded in the sky and Kepler began to study the so-called "New Star at the foot of the Serpent Holder". It was his duty as court astronomer of Emperor Rudolf II in Prague to take an official position because "almost every theologian, philosopher, doctor, and mathematician felt obliged to publish their findings" (Kepler). Some of the superstitious predictions, and especially the comparisons with the Star of Bethlehem, were beginning to cause some unrest and the astronomer responded with a German article in 1604 while the "new star" was still twinkling in the sky. A detailed study followed with "De Stella nova..." in 1606, a Latin book with two appendices, of which one speculates about the date of Christ's birth. Only because a Polish Jesuit had written a book in 1605 about a four-year error in the Christian calendar could Kepler dare to suggest that Christ may have been born a few years earlier than the Church believed. He calculated the planetary positions from 7 to 5 BCE and came up with a controversial theory: The Star of Bethlehem was not a divine miracle, but a natural, astronomical event! While disputing each of the superstitious theories that were discussed at the time, he suggested cautiously that the mysterious star may be a recurring event which relates to the phoenix myth. Because this would be a major discovery we will examine it in detail in other articles. 

       It is rarely brought up that much the fame of Galileo and Newton rests on Kepler's shoulders. In fact, Isaac Newton was a passionate alchemist and wrote more works about religious speculation than science. Such interdisciplinary excursions were part of the Baroque zeitgeist and inspired Kepler to publish a few religiously themed works as well, which are usually ignored by his peers, the astronomers. This changed in December, 1936, when Washington's "Science News" ran a brief article to acknowledge the Christmas season:

"Was Star Of Bethlehem Three Bright Planets? Modern astronomers suggest that it may have been the planets Jupiter, Saturn and Mars grouped closely together in a little triangle. Such a grouping, astronomers calculate, occurred about Feb. 25, in the year 6 BC." The article ends with a list of planetariums that project the ancient skies of Judea "where the three bright planets are thus shown in a miraculously bright triangle." (1)

        This claim was attacked immediately by the astronomer M.W. Burke-Gaffney S.J. at a Jesuit Seminary in Toronto and the lecture published by the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada in early 1937 (2). The Jesuit identified Kepler as the discoverer of the "miraculous triangle" although he is not mentioned, probably because "Kepler" rhymes with "Hitler".  How Burke-Gaffney summarizes Kepler's alleged superstitious beliefs reveals his agenda:

"The astrologers of old observed that Jupiter was in conjunction with Saturn about every twenty years. They calculated that this conjunction took place in the same part of the sky every 800 years. In December 1603 there was to be a conjunction of Jupiter with Saturn in Sagittarius, which to astrologers was one of the points of the Fiery Trigon. In the autumn of 1604, when Jupiter and Saturn were still in the Fiery Trigon, and not far apart, Mars was to come, and be in conjunction with Saturn on September 26, and with Jupiter on Oct. 9. Thus in early October 1604 Mars, Jupiter and Saturn would be at the vertices of a triangle, forming a fiery triangle in the Fiery Trigon. A conjunction in the Fiery Trigon presaged great things; a fiery triangle there was surpassed as an omen only by a comet."

Although "a fiery triangle in the Fiery Trigon" presaged great things for astrologers, it is rather telling that Burke-Gaffney published a diagram without this particular triangle. He chose October, 17, 1604, when a break in the clouds allowed Kepler to see the supernova for the first time and, curiously, when it topped a "fiery triangle" with Saturn and Jupiter because Mars had moved on. For lack of a better explanation, it seems the Jesuit wanted to create the impression that Kepler believed the "New Star" was somehow connected to the three planets. We traced their positions back to the right, because planets move along the ecliptic from West to East, from right to left. The sketches we added to the diagram confirm Kepler's remarks: The fiery triangle formed on September 16, before Mars was to come and be in conjunction with Saturn in late September. But about two weeks later and before Mars reached Jupiter, a triangle of watery symbolism appeared on October 2 as well. But why did the Jesuit fail to mention the second triangle? Was it because the symbolism of two triangles invites an esoteric interpretation? Furthermore, the diagram features Sagittarius within 0-30 degrees, which allowed him to ignore the Zodiac where the triangles would be closer to Scorpio, between 240-250 degrees. After getting his seminarians slightly confused, he mounted an all-out attack on Kepler's credibility by quoting a text he labeled "typically Keplerian, born of erudition wedded to astrology by misguided genius" because eight years after "De Stella nova" and after he had discovered the true orbits of the planets, Kepler had made some absurd, astrological references to the Star of Bethlehem which contradict the astronomical laws he had established (3):

"This star was not of the ordinary run of comets or new stars, but by a special miracle moved in the lower layer of the atmosphere. The Magi were of Chaldea, where astrology was born, of which this is a dictum: Great conjunctions of planets in cardinal points, especially in the equinoctial points of Aries and Libra, signify a universal change of affairs; and a cometary star appearing at the same time tells of the rise of a king..." (Kepleri opera omnia, Frisch, vol. IV, pp. 246-7)

      The way Burke-Gaffney bashes Kepler's credibility made the lecture quite entertaining! As a follow up, he dismissed Kepler's views about the "great conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars", which he always featured in the context of the Star of Bethlehem, by citing two noted scholars, Ludwig Ideler of Berlin and Charles Pritchard of Oxford:

"Pritchard does not even consider the approach of Mars to Jupiter and Saturn in February and March BC 6, since neither Ideler nor Kepler had suggested that these three planets could be mistaken for a single star, for in Ideler's words: at about this time Jupiter and Saturn lost themselves in the rays of the evening sun..."

The Jesuit points out that Matthew's Gospel uses the Greek "aster", which identifies a star and not a planet, and concludes from Pritchard's calculations that the sun was already 24 degrees from Saturn on Feb. 12, 6 BCE, two weeks before the "miraculous triangle" would form. During such a lively lecture, a slight miscalculation of the sun's position by Pritchard and Ideler's vague reference "at about this time" is all he needed to debunk the article: 

"This means that from about the middle of February, Saturn and Mars would be too close to the sun to be seen by the naked eye. Hence the statement that Mars, Jupiter and Saturn formed a triangle in the sky about Feb. 25, BC. 6 (Science News Letter, Dec. 19, 1936, p. 393) is misleading, inasmuch as the triangle could not be seen."

      End of story, it would seem, because the popular Christmas shows were discontinued. If the triangle was this close to the sun it was invisible and meaningless. After all, the Magi are venerated as wise men  not as fools! In view of such a brilliant performance, conspiracy theorists might even suggest the Vatican was so grateful that the "well-loved astronomer" eliminated the superstitious beliefs of a misguided Lutheran that it donated the funds for an observatory in his name anonymously, of course (4). His achievement is even greater if we consider, as we will show in the next article, that in spite of being a Protestant Kepler had a following among Jesuit scholars who supported his research, although he may have cultivated them as a "life insurance".

      Thirty years after Burke-Gaffney's lecture, and thanks to the astronomers Robert Victor (Abrams Planetarium, East Lansing) and John Mosley (Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles), we had solid proof that the Jesuit was wrong: Victor saw the Mars-Saturn conjunction on February 20, 1966, with the naked eye although the planets were closer to the sun than in 6 BCE and observed from a higher latitude than the Near East. Mosley, who introduced this writer to the controversy in the 1980s, checked Victor's report and confirms in an article that the miraculous triangle was clearly visible (5) which restores the claim in the Science News and requires a closer examination of Kepler's discovery.

 

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NOTES:

 

1.  Science News Letter, Washington D.C., December 19, 1936, p.393

  

2.  The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, (Toronto, 1937), pp. 416-425

  

3.  M.W. Burke-Gaffney, S.J., Kepler and the Jesuits, (Milwaukee, 1944), p. 56

  

4. "The observatory at St. Mary's University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in Canada is named in honor of Reverend Burke-Gaffney, S. J  (1896-1979). It is located on the top of the 22-storey Loyola residence tower, and was made possible by an anonymous benefactor who wished to honor the university's well-loved astronomer".

 

5.  John Mosley, Common Errors in "Star of Bethlehem" Planetarium Shows, Griffith Observatory, (Los Angeles, 1981), available on-line, see 7.

 

 

 

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